By Mark Coker, Smashwords

 

Welcome to the fourth annual 2015 Smashwords Survey.

As long time followers of the Smashwords Survey know, we examine real sales data to extract potential insights about best practices that give indie authors and publishers incremental advantages in the marketplace.

You want to reach more readers.  This Survey might help.

First, an apology of sorts.  I first shared the survey results you are about to learn in the embedded presentation below at the RT Booklovers conference in Dallas in May.  Despite my best intentions to publish this soon after here on the blog, I’m tardy in bringing you the full results.  But here today for your reading pleasure, today I hunkered down, turned off my email and locked myself in a room until it was completed.  Whew!

Although I’m bringing this to you later than expected, for followers of the blog, I’ve already been previewing the most important findings here in my regular blog posts since May.

The survey is based on over $25 million in actual verified ebook sales data, aggregated across the Smashwords distribution network between April 2014 and March 2015.  During this period, the following retailers and library partners contributed sales data in the form of sales reports for Smashwords books:  Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, the Smashwords Store, Scribd, OverDrive, Amazon (a small subset of our titles), Baker & Taylor Axis 360, Blio, Oyster, Flipkart and Inktera.

At first glance, one might think this data is dated.  Yes, it’s coming to you nearly six months after it was first released, but I think if you take a look you’ll see that it contains some important nuggets that will help you increase the visibility and sales of your books, as well as new findings that might help you either reinforce or evolve your views on certain best practices.

The Survey reveals a couple industry firsts (see the summary of findings below the embedded presentation below) that will help Smashwords authors and publishers publish with greater professionalism and success in the months ahead.

For students of the Smashwords Survey who wish to take the time, there’s also much to be learned by viewing the results within the larger context of our prior surveys (View our prior surveys here: Smashwords Survey 2014 | Smashwords Survey 2013 | Smashwords Survey 2012 ).  It’s almost as interesting to observe what hasn’t changed as it is to observe the new findings.

Several of the new findings are enabled by tools we’ve released over the last couple years including the Smashwords Series Manager which allows us to look closer at the factors driving series performance, and Smashwords Preorder Distribution which was first announced in 2013 but has now given us a wealth of information we can now mine and share.  And looking ahead to the Smashwords 2016 Survey which we’ll release in six months, our new enhanced metadata for box sets will allow us to share new insight about box set performance.

Here’s the Slideshare deck.  Please feel free to embed it in your own blog or share it with a friend.  You can also view it at Slideshare here, where you find additional links to share it or download it.

2015 Smashwords Survey – How to Sell More Ebooks from Smashwords, Inc.

So let’s look at the key findings.
Key Findings of the 2015 Smashwords Survey

1.  Wow, preorders.  For the first time we analyzed the percentage of books born as preorders (as opposed to simply uploaded the day of release) and compared the sales of preorder-birthed books to non-preorder books.  During the survey period, less than 10 percent of books were born as a preorder, even though this feature has been available to Smashwords authors since mid 2013.  Yet despite the low usage, two thirds of our top 200 bestselling titles were born as preorders.   That’s right folks.  That small tiny minority of preorder books accounted for the majority of our bestsellers.   On a median basis, ebook born as preorders earned the authors 3 1/2 times more income than books that were simply uploaded the day of release.  The average was even more stunning.  The survey contains a full page of caveats about these numbers and why I think they’re exaggerated so I hope you take the time to read that.  The bottom line, however, is that about 90% of indies are failing to take full advantage of this amazing tool.  If you don’t have your next 12 months of planned releases listed as preorders today, then you’re leaving readers and money on the table.  I’ll go a step further:  Preorders are such an essential best practice that it’s simply dumb not to take the time to learn how to use them to your advantage.  I make it easy to learn because I’ve written multiple article on preorder best practices.  Learn more about our new Assetless Preorder feature here,  access the Smashwords preorder page here (includes links to my blog posts on preorders) or check out my NEW article I wrote last month on ebook preorder strategy for Publishers Weekly.

2.  Series with free series starters earn more money.  For the first time we analyzed the difference in sales between series with free series and starters and series without free series starters.  We looked at our 200 bestselling series with a free series starter and our 200 bestselling series without free series starters.  Then we added up the numbers and compared them.  First we looked at the average.  The free series starter group earned 66% more.  Impressive.  And then, assuming that maybe a few big sellers were skewing the average, we looked at the median.  The median is the midpoint if you arrange the sales results from highest to lowest.  Often in big data sets, the median can give you a more typical result.  The result?  Exactly the same!  The median title in the free series starter group earned 66% more.  This is the strongest quantifiable evidence that I’m aware of to date that proves what many of our authors already know by personal experience over the last several years.  If you write series and you haven’t yet experimented with perma-free series starters, then give it a try!

3.  Free still works to build readership.  For each survey year, we’ve looked at how free ebook downloads compare to paid downloads using iBooks as our apples to apples comparison each year (bad pun, sorry!).  In the 2014 Survey, we found that free books got 39 times more downloads than priced books, down dramatically from 91x in 2013 and 100X in 2012.   I expected the power of free to fall further this year, given that this secret – which I’ve been advocating for nearly eight years – helps authors earn more money.  The result for 2014?  41x.  The effectiveness of free increased despite the glut of free books.  I think a couple things are going on here.  First, I think more and more readers are using free as their primary discovery path to try new, unknown-to-them authors, especially with free series starters.  Second, iBooks, more than any other retailer, provides amazing merchandising support for free books and free series starters.  Third, it’s a multi-step path to build a loyal readership of superfans who will buy everything you write.  Superfans are your evangelists.  They trust everything you write to be super-awesome.  You earn them one by one, word by word.  If you reverse engineer the trust building process, it starts with discovery which leads to a reader trying you for the first time, and then your book must earn the reader’s continued attention from word one forward.  A free book allows a reader to try you risk free, and if you’re offering them a great full length book, that’s a lot of hours the reader has spent with your words in which you’re earning and deserving their continued readership.  Free works!

4.  Longer books sell better than shorter books.  This finding is consistent with each of the prior year’s surveys, though as I mention in the presentation, this year’s finding comes with a lot more caveats.  In a nutshell, I suspect the rise of multi-author box sets, often at deep discount prices, is probably throwing off the data this year, and as I discuss in the presentation, some of the dynamics will cause it to understate impact of longer books and some will cause it to overstate it.

5.  $3.99 remains the sweet spot for full length indie fiction.  For the third year in a row, authors sold more units and earned more overall income with books priced at $3.99.  This is significant because it counters the concern of some authors that the glut of high-quality will lead to ever lower prices.  For great authors, readers are still willing to pay.  The pricing, earnings and unit sales data we share has been remarkably consistent now for four years, expecially when you consider how this translates to a competitive advantage for indie ebook authors compared to traditionally published ebook authors.  Indies still have the ability to price lower, net more per sale and reach more readers thanks to the lower pricing.  But traditional publishers are now making greater use of lower pricing, so this advantage will diminish in the years to come (more on that in my 2016 predictions to come).

6.  99 cents is still good for building readership, but not as good as $2.99 and $3.99.  And from an earnings perspective, 99 cents underperforms the average of all other prices by about 65%.

7.  Avoid $1.99.   For the fourth year in a row, $1.99 was a black hole in terms of overall earnings.  On a unit sales basis, although $1.99 books outperformed all books priced $5.00 and above, it dramatically underperformed on overall earnings, earning 73% less than the average of all other price points.  If you write full length fiction and you have books priced at $1.99, trying increasing the price to $2.99 or $3.99, and if your book performs as the aggregate does, you’ll probably sell more units.  Or if it’s short and $2.99+ is too high, try 99 cents instead because the data suggests you’ll earn more and reach about 65% more readers.  I’m not entirely certain why this is the case.  It’s not because our retailers pay lower levels for sub-$2.99 books.  They don’t.  Our retailers pay the same for $1.99 as they do for $9.99.  There’s something about the price point that readers don’t like.  Who knows, maybe readers see 99 cents as an enticing promotional price, $2.99 and up as a fair price, and $1.99 as the price for lesser quality books that couldn’t make the $2.99 grade.  Your theory is as good as mine.

8.  Bestselling authors and social media.  Bestselling authors are more likely to have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, and more likely to have a blog.  Not a huge surprise, though it’s worth noting there are plenty of successful authors who have minimal presence on social media.

9.  Top 10 Fiction categories during the one year period:  1.  Romance.  2.  Erotica.  3.  YA and teen fiction.  4.  Fantasy.  5.  Mystery & detective.   6.  Gay and lesbian fiction.  7.  Science fiction.  8.  Historical.  9.  Thriller & suspense.   10.  Adventure.

10.  Top 10 Non-fiction categories during the one year period:  1. Biography.  2.  Health, wellbeing and medicine.  3.  Business & economics.  4.  Self-improvement.  5. Religion & spirituality.  6.  Relationships and family.  7.  Sports and outdoor recreation.   8.  Education and study guides.  9.  New age.  10.  Computers & Internet.

Check out the complete 2015 Smashwords Survey at Slideshare for more!

Notes and cautionary caveats about the data

I want to help you be as informed as possible, and that includes helping you understand the potential limitations of the data and our findings.
The data above is aggregated across multiple Smashwords retailers, library partners and the Smashwords Store.  I’m not aware of any other survey that is based on such a large volume of real, verified sales.  For this reason alone, some of this data has a potential weight and statistical significance that is much more useful than the anecdotal data learned from one’s own personal experience, from friends and from Internet heresay.  But as such, the is not without its flaws and limitations, and it does not invalidate your personal experiences because every author and every book is different.
iBooks and Barnes & Noble are our largest ebook sales channels, so you can assume these stores had an outsize impact on our results.
Smashwords sales are heavily skewed toward fiction (as is the entire industry) and romance (romance is huge in ebooks, but I expect our exposure to romance is greater than most traditional publishers).  Therefore, if you write non-fiction, some of these findings will be useful and some may be less relevant.
Smashwords offers a massive catalog approaching 400,000 books, and most of these titles are over one year old.  Most books get the lion’s share of their sales in the first few months (one reason Amazon KDP is a three month cycle).  In this Survey, we don’t different titles by age (but maybe we should in future surveys!).
Numbers are dangerous.  Although averages and medians can give you useful information, your book may not conform to the average or median.  So use caution when basing your publishing decisions on these findings.  The best price point for the aggregate of indie ebooks may not be the best price point for your book.  Your book is unique.  Use this data as one of only multiple inputs that you use in your decision process.
Correlation does not necessarily equal causation.  Just because we see patterns in the data doesn’t mean that one thing caused the other.  As is the truth in all life, there are typically dozens or hundreds of factors that can conspire to create certain results, and it’s nearly impossible to capture these factors in data alone.  For example, longer books often sell better than shorter books.  That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for your short novella to hit the New York Times bestseller list, nor would such a wonderful occurrence invalidate the usefulness of our data.
This was our first Survey year where subscription ebook services became a factor in the market.  Between Scribd, Oyster and Kindle Unlimited, subscribers to these services aren’t necessarily exposed to the price of the book, which means retail price isn’t a decision factor, and we don’t separate out subscription sales from our data set.  It means some of the pricing data is potentially skewed.
Although we include some sales data from Amazon, it’s only for a small subset of our catalog, and none of these titles were enrolled in KDP Select or Kindle Unlimited.  Therefore, although most of our findings will be useful to Amazon authors, it would be most accurate to think of these findings as more relevant to the non-Amazon retailers.
We’re looking at a snapshot of data over a 12 month period, and I’m bringing it to you six months later.  The implications of this are discussed above.

So that’s it!  I hope you enjoy the Survey.  I’ll release the 2016 Smashwords Survey at RT Booklovers in Las Vegas in April, and next year I’ll try to get the Survey out quicker for all to see.

If you’re not yet publishing with Smashwords, check out this How to Publish and Distribute with Smashwords page.  We look forward to working with you.

By Mark Coker

Last Friday in a bit of news that was missed by most indie authors, Amazon quietly announced that because they’re pricing their Kindle Unlimited ebook subscription service at $3.00 per month in India, authors will now earn less.

I’m sorry to say I predicted such a devaluation back in March in an interview with the International Publishers Association titled, Not all Subscription Services are Created Equal. In that interview I warned there was nothing stopping Amazon from waking up one day and deciding that their $9.99 subscription service should be priced at $3.00 instead.  So now it’s happening in India.  Amazon hints it will happen in other countries too.

Was I prophetic?  Not really.  None of this should come as a surprise, yet thousands of authors will be surprised once they realize the slippery slope that is KDP Select.  It’s an inevitable outcome when authors surrender full pricing and compensation control (via their KDP Select enrollment) to a company whose entire business model is predicated upon commoditizing and devaluing products by stripping suppliers of pricing control.  Amazon does this in the name of offering customers the lowest possible prices.

Is Amazon Working to Kill Single Copy Ebook Sales?

There’s another potentially more insidious form of devaluation taking place, and sadly the indie author community (which supplies the bulk of KU titles) is Amazon’s unwitting accomplice.

Kindle Unlimited is training readers to think that single-copy ebook purchases are too expensive.

In my Oyster and the KDP Select Party Train post, I shared screen shots of how Kindle Unlimited makes even 99 cent single-copy purchases look expensive when the same book can be read for free under Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime.

Six days following my Party Train post, bestselling indie fantasy author Randoph Lalonde reported that he has received hate mail from Kindle Unlimited subscribers who refuse to purchase his books unless he makes them available for free as part of their Kindle Unlimited subscription.  Wow.

Like many indie authors, Randoph Lalonde prices his full-length series starters at free and prices the rest of his books at $2.99 and $3.99.  He writes great books and earns great reviews, but suddenly now for a small but apparently growing subset of readers spoiled by Kindle Unlimited, his books are too expensive.  Crazy.

Kindle Unlimited is crucifying single copy sales upon the altar of greed and gluttony.

Enjoy your single copy sales while they last.

As I’ve written previously, indie authors have the power to prevent this bleak future.  All they need to do is stop enrolling their books in KDP Select before it’s too late.  Spread the word.

By Mark Coker

 

Smashwords today announced a comprehensive distribution agreement with Gardners, the UK’s largest book wholesaler.

The agreement significantly expands the global footprint of the Smashwords ebook distribution network, enabling Smashwords authors and publishers to reach hundreds of online retailers, public libraries and academic libraries.

On October 22 Smashwords will begin delivering 230,000 ebooks sourced from the over 100,000 indie authors and small independent presses to 400 ebook stores powered by Gardners operating in 32 countries and serving customers in 138 countries; 2,000 public libraries in the U.K.; and 400 academic libraries in the UK, Europe and Middle East.  The agreement excludes Smashwords erotica titles.

Gardners clients and their customers will gain access to many of the world’s bestselling indie authors, including numerous New York Times and USA Today bestsellers. The Smashwords catalog features a diverse range of fiction and non-fiction titles, and is especially strong in popular genre fiction including romance, mysteries, thrillers, fantasy and science fiction.

Agreement Spans Retail and Libraries

The comprehensive partnership covers both retail and library distribution.
1.  RETAIL

Gardners Extended Retail Distribution – Gardners powers the online ebook store operations of over 400 small and medium-sized booksellers globally as part of its white label ecommerce and digital content fulfillment & distribution services.

Notable retailers with ebook stores powered by Gardners include www.hive.co.uk, www.books.telegraph.co.uk , www.indieebook.co.uk in the UK, www.bokus.com in Sweden ,  www.takealot.com in South Africa and www.saxo.com in Denmark.  Hive.co.uk, which is owned and operated by Gardners, is interesting because it features and supports hundreds of independent brick and mortar retailers.  Every sale benefits the consumer’s selected shop. Hive features a large range of titles from the Gardners catalog of over five million items which include ebooks, print books, DVDs, audiobooks, stationary supplies and more.

Smashwords authors and publishers will earn 60% of the after-VAT list price at Gardners-powered ebook stores, the same terms as they earn with Smashwords at iBooks and other major retailers.

2. LIBRARIES

Gardners library ebook distribution will allow Smashwords authors and publishers to reach both public libraries and academic libraries.

Askews & Holts Library Services – Askews & Holts (A&H) is a sister company to Gardners, and operates the UK’s largest library ebook service.  A&H currently powers the ebook checkout systems of 81 public library authorities in the U.K. comprised of 2,000+ public libraries.  This represents over half of the UK library authorities, serving a local population of 17 million people.

The A&H library service is really interesting.  Unlike conventional library ebook services that require the library to purchase the book prior to allowing the patron to discover and sample it, A&H offers libraries a truly patron-driven service.   All Smashwords titles will be available and discoverable to library patrons.  Patrons can search the catalog and when they check out a book it triggers a purchase by the library, assuming it wasn’t previously purchased or checked out at the time.  This patron-driven approach to library ebooks solves a significant budgetary challenge faced by all libraries – namely that libraries under other systems routinely waste precious budget to purchase books that are never read.  Libraries can set monthly budgets to control costs.  Once budgets are met, library patrons are given the option to purchase books that aren’t yet in the library’s catalog, or that might already be checked out.  Also in a significant first, A&H will include all Smashwords books priced at FREE so library patrons can access the books at no cost.  By contrast, Smashwords partner OverDrive, the world’s largest library ebook platform, doesn’t support free books and prices all sub-$1.99 and free Smashwords ebooks at $1.99.  This minimum pricing requirement has disappointed some Smashwords authors and publishers that want to show their support for libraries by offering their books at lower-than-retail prices including FREE.  With the Smashwords Pricing Manager tool in the Smashwords Dashboard, authors and publishers can set custom prices for libraries.  Similar to our library distribution deals with OverDrive and Baker & Taylor Axis 360, Smashwords authors and publishers will earn 45% of the list price for all library sales.  Also similar to our other library deals, once an A&H library purchases a Smashwords title, they own it can check it out to one patron at a time.

VLeBooks – Smashwords titles will also be accessible on the VLeBooks service, the ebook platform for Browns Books for Students, another sister company of Gardners that serves academic libraries.

VLeBooks is used by 400 schools & colleges in Europe, the Middle East & Asia and 78 universities in the UK, with over 200,000 students registered on the platform. More than 16,000 academic librarians and teachers utilize the platform for their digital and physical book orders.  The terms of sale for VLeBooks are the same as for Askews & Holts.

How to Distribute Ebooks to Gardners

Smashwords shipments to Gardners will begin on October 22, seven days from today.  If you want your books distributed to these new Gardners channels, your Premium Catalog-approved books (excluding erotica) will automatically flow to them starting in one week.

If you wish to opt out of either the Gardners retail or library channels (NOT recommended), you’ll find the option in your Dashboard’s Channel Manager.  Two channels are listed separately, one is labeled Gardners Extended Retail Distribution and the other, which comprises both library channels is labeled Gardners Library Distribution.  With distribution beginning in one week, Smashwords estimates that most Smashwords books will be listed at these services within six to eight weeks, although titles may appear earlier or later than anticipated.

Thank you Gardners for supporting Smashwords authors and publishers!

Amazon professes a commitment to offering customers rock-bottom prices, yet Amazon is the only ebook retailer to restrict the ability of authors and publishers to price at FREE.

The only officially sanctioned method of pricing an ebook to free in the Kindle store is for authors to enroll their books in KDP Select, an optional program that requires exclusivity. Exclusivity is great for Amazon, but it’s not so great for indie authors who want to maintain their independence and build a diversified revenue stream and readership across all retailers.

Amazon allows KDP Select books to be priced at free for only five days per quarter. That’s not enough time for authors to take full advantage of the amazing promotional magic of free.

Every month I meet writers who think the only way to take advantage of free at Amazon is to enroll in KDP Select. Not true. If you know writers operating under this mistaken belief, please share this post with them.

There’s another, better option, and it doesn’t require exclusivity. Smashwords and our retail partners can help.

In this post, I’ll teach you a trick veteran indie authors have been using for several years to do free and perma-free ebooks at Amazon without exclusivity. It’s a way to turn Amazon’s price-matching robots against Amazon.

As you’ll learn below, authors who avoid KDP Select can make greater use of free than those who are trapped in KDP Select.

It’s a simple process. Here are the steps:

1. At your Amazon KDP dashboard, price your book to $.99.

2. At Smashwords, price your book to free.

3. Within hours, iBooks will reflect the new price of free, and B&N and Kobo will follow within 1-2 business days. Next, visit your book page at Amazon and click the link under the “Product Details” box labeled, “tell us about a lower price.” There, you or a friend can click the button beside “Website (Online)” and report that your book is available for free at another retailer. In that form, provide Amazon a direct hyperlink to one of the Smashwords retailers. A link to Apple or B&N is a good bet. I don’t think they’ll price match against the Smashwords store. See the screen shot below.

Notes on the above: A. If your book is priced $2.99 or over and enrolled in the 70% royalty rate and you price at free elsewhere, Amazon will send you one of their lovely fire-and-brimstone emails where they’ll threaten to kick you out of KDP for your transgression (the 70% royalty rate requires you not price your book lower elsewhere). But books enrolled in the 35% royalty rate (automatic for 99 cent books) don’t get the nastygram because price parity elsewhere is not a requirement. B. Some authors ask friends or fans to report their books. I don’t know if it makes a difference. C. Note that Amazon operates about 13 different stores, so you may want to report the book separately at their largest English-language stores (US, UK, Canada, Australia) to encourage price matching in each store. D. Amazon will often price match even if you don’t do the self-reporting. E. Sometimes Amazon will not price match, even if you or a reader report the lower price elsewhere. They know indie authors use this trick to gain better control over their pricing.

WHY SHOULD YOU PRICE AT FREE?

Every author is well-served to experiment with free – either with temporary free promotions or with permanently free (aka perma-free). Why? Because free builds readership, and some of those readers will fall in love with your writing and purchase your other books.

Free turbocharges your readership by eliminating the financial risk a reader takes on an unknown, untrusted author (and that’s you until they know and trust you!). Free allows the reader to read you risk-free, and gives your writing a chance to earn the reader’s trust and admiration.

I’ve been promoting the use of free ever since we launched Smashwords in 2008. Smart use of free has catapulted many Smashwords authors to the bestseller lists.

At iBooks, free books get 41 times more downloads on average than books at any other price.

If you write series, definitely price your series starter at perma-free. Why? Because series with free series starters earn more overall sales than series without free series starters.

About 65% of our top 100 bestselling series over the last 12 months have a free series starter. Here’s more data on the effectiveness of free series starters: For the Smashwords 2015 Survey, we added up the sales of our top 100 series with free series starters and then compared that to the aggregated sales of our top 100 series that don’t have a free series starter. The group with free series starters earned an average 66% more than the the group with priced series starters. I also looked at the median increase to rule out the possibility that a couple mega bestsellers might have skewed the numbers. The median was also 66% higher for series with free series starters. Exactly the same.

Free series starters also open up the possibility of earning merchandising features at the retailers, particularly at iBooks. iBooks does more to promote free than any other retailer with their regular “First in Series Free” promotions. Last week, iBooks launched a “Rising Stars in Romance” feature in their Australia and New Zealand stores featuring the free series starters of Australian and New Zealand authors.

Even authors who only publish standalone books can benefit from free. For many first-time authors, one of your biggest challenges is to get your first readers and your first reviews at retailers. Free builds readership and can help you establish your first reviews at the major retailers. Or, if your book has been out a long time and sales have dwindled, try a temporary free promotion to rev up readership, reviews and word of mouth.

If you have a standalone book on preorder, you can price another standalone book at free to drive up readership, and then use the backmatter of that free book to advertise your preorder (at the end of every book, you should provide a listing of your other books).

Free is not a guarantee of readership. A few weeks ago I received an email from a Smashwords author who priced his books at free yet he was still struggling to attract readers. The reason: there’s a lot of competition out there. Smashwords authors and publishers publish over 55,000 books at free. Although free is a powerful catalyst for building readership, free works best if your book is a super-awesome WOW book that turns the reader into a evangelist. WOW books average 4.5 to 5 stars out of 5. Just because a book is free doesn’t mean the reader will read it or finish it. On the contrary, they’re probably less likely to finish a free book if it doesn’t hold their attention on every page.

Bottom line, if you want to turn a free downloader into a paid reader, you must earn the reader’s awareness and trust. It’s classic PR 101. First build awareness, then build perception. Free helps the reader become aware of your writing. Perception is formed based on the true merits of the product.

Beyond the power of free to get readers to take a chance on you, there’s a lot more you can do under the umbrella of best practices (free is only one of many best practices). To learn more about best practices, check out my presentation deck, How to Publish Ebooks, or download my free ebook, The Secrets to Ebook Publihsing Success. Also check out my recent blog posts, Ebook Publishing Gets More Difficult from Here – Here’s How to Succeed for additional ideas on how to reach more readers.

By Mark Coker

Each year I provide Smashwords authors and publishers a review of our progress in the year as well as hints of our plans for the coming year.  So here goes.
smashwords growth 2008-2014

2014 marked another exciting year for Smashwords as we create new ebook distribution tools and capabilities that give our authors and publishers a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

If you’re new to Smashwords, a brief introduction to Smashwords is in order.

I founded Smashwords in 2008 to empower writers to become professional self-publishers.  I wanted to transfer the power of publishing from publishers to authors.  Back in 2008, large publishers controlled the printing press, the knowledge of professional publishing, and the all-important access to retail distribution.  Publishers had the power to determine your fate as an author.  No more.  I wanted to make authors the captains of their own destiny.

Over the last six going on seven years, Smashwords introduced our free ebook printing press, Meatgrinder, which made it possible for any writer anywhere to publish an ebook in minutes; we opened distribution for the first time to major retailers and library partners that were previously inaccessible to self-published authors; we developed sophisticated yet easy-to-use publishing tools that help writers and small indie presses publish with pride and professionalism; we worked to actively educate our authors and publishers how to leverage best practices to publish with greater success; and we’ve been fierce (but friendly!) advocates for the rights and long term interests of the indie author community.

We exist to serve our authors and publishers, and we serve you by developing tools and relationships that help you publish faster, smarter and more effectively. Our time-saving tools help you spend more time writing and producing and less time managing multiple upload platforms.

In the years since we launched, Smashwords has grown to become the world’s largest distributor of self-published books.  To the extent we’ve been successful is entirely thanks to the continued support of the authors, publishers and retailers we serve.  You’re running a business, and we realize you work with Smashwords by choice, not by necessity.  Through continuous improvement of everything we do, we will always work to earn and deserve your continued business, trust and partnership.

So let’s take a look at our progress for the year.

Among our service milestones for the year:
New distribution channels – We added new distribution partners including OverDrive, the world’s largest ebook supplier serving over 20,000 public libraries, and Txtr, a European retailer.  New partners Oyster and Scribd were brought fully online.
Faster distributions – Working in close partnership with all our retail partners, Smashwords dramatically increased the speed and reliability of our distribution systems in 2014.  We’re now shipping multiple times daily to most of our retailers, and near-real time to iBooks, where, for example, and it’s not uncommon for authors to upload a book to Smashwords and see it appear at iBooks the same day.  Faster distributions of new titles and metadata updates give our authors more control over their publishing.
Faster sales reporting – We improved the speed of sales reporting.  In May, we introduced our Daily Sales tool which provides next-day and same-day sales reporting from iBooks, Barnes & Noble, OverDrive and Kobo.
Added EPUB 3 support – Smashwords now accepts EPUB3 files as part of our Smashwords Direct feature.  EPUB3 gives authors and publishers greater language support and text layout options, including right to left reading and vertical reading.
We helped more authors realize their full potential – Smashwords authors bring us their talent, and we give them tools to help realize the full potential of their talent.  Multiple Smashwords authors hit retailer bestseller lists in 2015 as well as national lists such as New York Times and USA Today, aided in part by the power of Smashwords preorders to iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, and also supported by enhanced metadata tools such as Smashwords Series Manager which improves series discoverability at retailers.
Diversification pays off – Our broad distribution network helped authors and publishers diversify their exposure to an industry-wide slowdown in ebook retailing.  Strong merchandising support for Smashwords authors by our wonderful colleagues at iBooks combined with sales growth from new distribution partners FlipKart, OverDrive; Oyster and Scribd helped many Smashwords authors and publishers have a great year.
Diversification pays off again – Authors who fully distributed their titles with Smashwords were partially insulated from the dramatic sales drops many Amazon authors reported following the introduction of Kindle Unlimited.  If you know indie authors who only upload to Amazon, invite them to diversify their distribution with Smashwords.
Among our business milestones for the year:
Title growth – The Smashwords catalog grew to 336,400 titles, up 60,300 titles or 22% during the year from 276,100 at the end of 2013.
Word count – Smashwords helped indie authors and small independent presses publish over 2.5 billion words in 2015, up 26% to over 12 billion words!
Author growth – Smashwords now serves over 100,000 indie authors and small independent presses around the globe.
Profitability – For the fourth year in a row, Smashwords maintained profitability.  Profitability is important to our authors and publishers because it allows us to reinvest in the development of new tools and capabilities to serve our authors and publishers.  We continue to achieve this profitability by aligning our interests 100% with the interests of our authors, publishers, retailers and readers.  Unlike many competing self-publishing services organizations, we don’t employ sales people and we don’t sell services or publishing packages.  We only make money if we help our authors and publishers sell books.
26 team members to serve you – We end the year with a team of 26 full-time professionals, up from 23 in 2013, 19 in 2012, 13 in 2011 and 3 in 2010.  This year we made significant investments in technology, distribution systems and finance.
Independence – Smashwords remains entirely self-funded without the assistance or interference of outside investors.
ALLi Award – The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) named Smashwords its service provider of the year, in recognition for the depth and breadth of our distribution capabilities, our advocacy for authors and our relentless commitment to continuous service improvement to empower the success of indie authors worldwide.
INC 500 – INC Magazine named Smashwords to its INC 500 list of America’s fastest growing private companies.  They named Smashwords the #1 fastest-growing media company.  Full credit for this accomplishment goes to Smashwords authors and publishers!
Bowker survey – Bowker, in their annual survey of self-publishing services, named Smashwords the #1 producer of ebooks in the U.S.  View the report here (opens a PDF)
Forbes America’s Most Promising Companies – Forbes Magazine, for the second year running, named Smashwords to its list of America’s Top 100 Most Promising Companies.
Despite our accomplishments in 2014, we’re not finished pushing the envelope.  We still feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible.  Our roadmap for 2015 and beyond is exciting.

Here are some hints to our direction.  In 2015, our authors and publishers can expect to see continuous improvements across every part of our business, including:
New distribution and merchandising tools that make your books more discoverable and desirable by readers
New price management tools that give our authors and publishers more granular control over pricing in multiple currencies and territories
New retailer additions to the Smashwords distribution network serving retailers and libraries
Improved, more intuitive sales reporting
An upgraded Meatgrinder to improve the ease and capabilities of our flagship ebook conversion tool
Improved search for the Smashwords retail store
… and some fun surprises that will set the stage for even greater things to come.
On behalf of the entire team at Smashwords I want to thank you for your continued trust, partnership and inspiration.  We’re looking forward to serving you in 2015!

By Mark Coker,

Welcome to my annual publishing industry predictions for the year ahead.  This year I share 12 predictions.

Before I speculate about what 2015 holds for authors and publishers, let’s reflect for a moment about how self publishing has transformed the book publishing landscape.

Thanks to ebook self publishing, every writer in the world has democratized access to the tools and knowledge of professional publishing.  It’s now possible for writers to make their books instantly accessible, discoverable and affordable to billions of readers around the world.

Most exciting of all, we’re still in the early days of the ebook self publishing revolution.  I’m confident that decades from now, ebook self publishing will be viewed by historians as no less transformative than the advent of the Gutenberg printing press.

Despite the incredible opportunities available to every indie author, clouds loom on the horizon.  Recent years of exponential ebook growth have given way to a new normal of slower growth, greater competition and disruptive business models and power struggles.  These factors create new threats and opportunities for publishing industry participants.

This is why annual predictions are so useful.  To the extent any of us can predict the future (an exercise fraught with folly I might add!), predictions help stir the imagination, spark constructive debate and assist with strategic planning.

So without further delay, I present to you my predictions for 2015.  Enjoy!

Mark Coker’s Publishing Predictions for 2015

1.  More authors will aspire to publish indie – In 2008 when I founded Smashwords, nearly all writers aspired to traditionally publish.  Self-publishing was viewed as the option of last resort – the option for failed writers.  Today the former stigma of self publishing is evaporating.  Indie authorship has become a global cultural movement, as I described when I published the Indie Author Manifesto earlier this year. The indie author movement will grow stronger in 2015.  Traditionally published authors will continue to transition to indie, led by midlist authors.  We’ll also see more hybrid authors reorient their publishing strategy back in the direction of indieville.

2.  Indie authors will capture more ebook market share – The percentage of reader dollars going to indie ebooks will increase.  The growth will be fueled by a continued increase in the number of indie-published ebooks, and by more indie authors adopting best practices to publish with greater pride and professionalism.  In March I shared some of my longer term market share projections here and here.

3.  Screen reading will increase, but at a slower rate – For readers of English language books, the early adopters of ebooks have adopted.  I think reading will continue to transition from print to digital, yet the rate of growth will slow.  One bright spot will be the continued growth in screen reading in developing countries aided by the ubiquity of smart phones.

4.  2015 will be slow growth for most authors, indie and traditional alike – I blogged about this topic last month in my post titled, Ebook Publishing Gets More Difficult From Here.  While some indies had a fabulous year in 2014 (look no further than the Smashwords bestseller list published in Publishers Weekly each month), most authors experienced a slower growth year – especially when compared against the go-go days of exponential growth from 2008 to 2012.  The causes for this slow down include a new equilibrium between print and ebook formats; immortal ebooks published by publishers and indie authors alike that will never go out of print; the continued growth of self-published titles; and myriad low-cost and free non-book alternatives competing for slices of consumers’ time such as social media, Internet video and games.

5.  Indie authors face increased competition from traditional publishers – For the first years of the ebook revolution, large publishers all but ceded the $4.99 and lower ebook market to indie authors.  Publishers tried to maintain higher prices, and indies – empowered with the ability to earn royalty rates of 60-80% list price –  offered budget-conscious consumers high-quality books at low prices.  The low prices, including the ultralow prices of FREE and .99, made it easier for readers to take a chance on unknown writers.

In the last year, large publishers, borrowing a page from the indie author playbook, have stepped up their price-cutting in the form of temporary promotions on titles from big-name authors.  In 2015 we’ll see the temporary promotions from large publishers that were so common in 2014 give way to permanent lower prices on backlist titles from big names, and faster, more aggressive discounting on recently released titles.

This means indies will face increased competition in the sub $5.00 price points.  In the past, you could identify indie titles on the bestseller lists by price alone.  This is no longer the case.  Large publishers will also make greater use of ultra-low prices.

6.  Large publishers step up usage of FREE – Inspired by the success of indie series writers who’ve had enormous success pricing series starters at permafree, large publishers will start making increased use of this unconventional price point.  Although few large publishers have made use of free as a promotional tool to date, this will begin to change in 2015.  As retailers such as iBooks run more “First in a Series Free” promotions which heretofore have been dominated by indie authors, publishers will feel the pressure to jump in.  As I write these predictions, iBooks is running a major multi-genre First in a Series Free promotion with nearly all the titles supplied by indie authors. Fifty nine Smashwords titles are featured!

7.  FREE will lose more mojo – Since 2008 I’ve encouraged authors to utilize free as a price point to turbocharge downloads, build readership and reader trust, and drive readers to priced titles.  Authors who followed this advice early on reaped the most benefit.  However, free is losing some of its gusto as the market becomes flooded with free ebooks. At Smashwords, nearly 50,000 titles are priced at free.

In our 2014 Smashwords survey we found that free books at iBooks were downloaded with 39 times more frequency than books at a price, down from a multiplier of 91 in the prior 2013 survey.  In 2015 I predict the multiplier will drop further.  Despite the anticipated drop in effectiveness, free remains one of the most powerful merchandising tools for indie authors, especially when applied to series starters. This also means that authors who utilize free today will get much more mileage from it than authors who use it a year from now (hint:  If you’re using free, make sure your free titles are upgraded with enhanced backmatter so they direct readers to your priced titles. See my blog post and video on this subject).  If you haven’t experimented with free yet, now is the time.

8.  Many indies will quit in 2015 – Authorship is tough work.  Discouraged by weak or slumping sales, many indie authors in 2015 will either give up on publishing or will decrease their production rates.  With the rapid rise of anything – whether we’re talking tulips, dot com stocks or real estate – bubbles form when the market becomes too frothy, too optimistic, too euphoric, and too crowded.  All markets are cyclical, so this boom-to-bust pattern, while painful for many, is healthy for the long term, especially for authors who stick it out.

Indie authors will be forced to take honest stock of their dreams, motivations and commitment.  What drives you?  Is it the joy of writing, or the necessity of putting food on the table, or both?  Either reason is respectable, but if your family’s next meal is entirely dependent upon your book sales, you’re under extra pressure.

9.  Time management will separate winners from losers – Raise your hand if you have too many hours in the day.  I’d hazard to speculate that each and every one of us fails on time management to some degree each day.  We only have so many minutes in a day, and only so many heartbeats in a lifetime.  Are you optimizing your author time so you’re spending more time writing and less time on the nonessentials?

For example, if it takes you multiple hours to format your ebook, why not hire a low cost formatter for $40 or less?  I’ll give you another example, and this one’s entirely self-serving but will resonate with many Smashwords authors – using a distributor.  Smashwords is a distributor.  Our job is to help you quickly deliver your book to multiple retailers, and then help you manage and control it with minimal effort.  When an author works with Smashwords, in exchange for a small commission we earn on every sale, the author gains the time-saving benefits of a single upload, centralized metadata management, and consolidated sales reporting and tax reporting.  I think this is why the vast majority of Smashwords authors choose to fully distribute with Smashwords rather than uploading direct to retailers.  The time-saving advantages of managing your publishing with a distributor become even more pronounced once you’re managing multiple titles.  No author’s career will fail because they gave 10% list to a distributor, but many authors will fail because they’re not focusing enough time on writing.

Another example. Many authors spend too much time on marketing and social media when they should be spending more time writing.  Your best marketing is a book that sparks enthusiastic word of mouth, so focus on the book.  If you enjoy social media, that’s great, but try to make it your end-of-day brain break after you’ve completed your daily writing quota.

10.  Amazon Will Use Kindle Unlimited to Pay Authors Less – Whether you love it or hate it, KU is already a massive disruptor in the world of ebook publishing. Many writers are claiming it caused their sales to plummet, while others say it has helped them reach new readers.  You can check out my prior analysis of KU here and here, or check out David Streitfeld’s recent story on KU in the New York Times.

KU will have broader impact in 2015.  Unlike its ebook subscription competitors Oyster and Scribd which allow authors and publishers to set prices and receive retailer-level margins on qualifying reads (Smashwords authors earn 60% of their book’s list price), KU pays from a shared pool.  Author/publisher compensation is based on a book’s prorated share of readership multiplied against the size of pool.  If it sounds opaque, that’s because it is. Amazon determines the size of each month’s pool and the value per qualified read after the month ends.

This wouldn’t be a problem if Amazon was a benevolent player, committed to paying their publishers 70% list.  In November Amazon paid only $1.39 per qualified read, regardless of the book’s length or price.  $1.39 works out great if your regular retail price is $.99 (a $.99 ebook sold at Amazon otherwise earns about 34 cents).  Yet if your regular ebook price is $3.99 and you’re accustomed to earning almost 70% of that or $2.80, then KU means your effective royalty rate was cut by almost half  in recent months to 35%.

Kindle Unlimited represents Amazon’s end-run around the Agency pricing model.  With Agency, Amazon is obligated to pay publishers 70% of the list price set by publishers and cannot discount books. KDP has an “Agency-lite” equivalent model in which Amazon doesn’t discount except in price matching situations.  With KU, your book’s price becomes irrelevant to Amazon.  It also gives Amazon the ability to pay you less than 70% list for each qualified read.

By providing KU preferential in-store merchandising, Amazon discourages customers from purchasing individual ebooks.  Since Amazon has a critical mass of over 700,000 books in Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s most voracious power readers already have nearly one million fewer reasons to purchase indie ebooks at full retail price.  This means that for many budget-minded readers who love indie ebooks, your $2.99 and $3.99 ebook is now too expensive when they can read it (or similar books) for free as part of their subscription.

As I mentioned in my last post, Is Kindle Unlimited Devaluing Books, most of Kindle Unlimited’s catalog is supplied by indie authors enrolled in Amazon’s KDP Select.  Without indie author support and participation in KDP Select, there’d be no Kindle Unlimited.

Will indies step up to the plate in 2015 and say no to KDP Select?  Since most indie authors sell poorly, I fear many indies will hear KU’s siren song and decide that earning $1.39 or less is better than earning nothing, and this will then perpetuate a slippery slope that will jeopardize earnings for all authors at Amazon.

11.  New VAT rules in Europe will put a damper on European ebook sales – Indie authors will suffer a drop in earnings from European ebook sales in 2015.  The cause?  New European Union VAT (Value Added Tax) rules.  On January 1, 2015, new VAT rules go into effect in the European Union.

In the past, the VAT imposed on ebooks was based on the VAT rate for the country in which the retailer was based.  To reduce the tax hit, retailers located their European headquarters in Luxembourg, where the VAT was only 3%.  At Smashwords retailers, the price set by the author was always VAT-inclusive, which meant the author and retailer’s cut was calculated after the 3% VAT was deducted.  At 3%, the rate was negligible and went unnoticed by most customers and authors.

Effective with the new EU rules that start January 1st, VAT is charged based on the customer’s geographic location.  Rates across the European Union will range from 15% to 26%.  This means that effective January 1st, myriad tax rates will be applied to your ebooks sold at Smashwords retailers such as Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble UK, Txtr, and Kobo.

Indie authors must now decide whether to raise their prices to pass the tax burden to readers, or hold the line on prices which means the author absorbs the tax hit.  Either way, the author loses.  The ebook retailers are harmed as well since the tax comes out of the purchase price before the retailer earns their 30% cut.  As one retailer told me, “we’re all hit with the same stick here.”  To help mitigate the pain, Smashwords is developing new pricing tools for authors.  Stay tuned.

12.  Back to basics:  The bestselling authors in 2015 win with best practices – The formula for bestseller success isn’t rocket science.  Success is all about best practices.  For every well-executed best practice implemented by the author, the author gains an incremental advantage in the marketplace.  What are some of these best practices?  1. You must write a super-awesome “wow” book that takes the reader to an emotional, satisfying extreme (this applies to fiction and non-fiction).  2.  Your books should be professionally edited and proofed  3.  A great cover image makes your book more discoverable and more desirable to your target reader.  Great cover images make an honest and visual promise to your target reader about the experience your book offers.  4. Give your book a fair price.  5.  Release your book as a preorder.  If you’re not doing preorders, you’re missing out on one of the most powerful merchandising tools today (click here to learn how preorders work).  6.  Avoid exclusivity and distribute your book widely.  7.  Write another book, rinse and repeat.

Although the best practices aren’t secrets any more (check out my Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success for a refresher on best practices – or watch my best practices video tutorial), most authors fall short on the best practices front. Some authors fall into the trap of searching for easy silver bullet shortcuts. There is no single silver bullet.  You must do many things right and avoid pitfalls that undermine your opportunity.

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That’s everything!  I hope you enjoyed my 2015 predictions.   Please add your own predictions for 2015 in the comments below.  What big trends are you seeing?

For your reading pleasure, below is an archive of some of my previous predictions.  How did I do?

Yahoo Finance

Amazon (AMZN) used to set the prices people paid for ebooks, but, thanks to an illegal price fixing conspiracy, they lost most of that power to publishers. Almost everyone — probably even the big publishers — would be better off if they got it back.

Part of what’s made Amazon a success is its sophisticated pricing system, which automatically raise and lower prices on millions of items throughout the day. Prices change in response to varying levels of interest from buyers, competitors’ prices and other factors. And the bottom line for consumers is great prices on most products, while sellers tout Amazon as their most profitable outlet.

Back before the major publishers plotted to take control of ebook prices in 2010, those same systems helped stimulate massive demand, sparking a multi-billion dollar market that more than made up for shrinking print book sales. The fact seems utterly lost on the industry today, as Hachette holds out against Amazon for higher ebook prices and some best selling authors protest the company’s tactics in full-page newspaper advertisements.

True, Amazon didn’t use dynamic pricing for every ebook. Best sellers and some new issues were priced at a fixed $9.99 as the same kind of loss leader strategy commonly found at the end of every super market aisle in the country. But the vast majority of ebooks were not fixed at $9.99, but rather at ever-varying prices set to stimulate the most sales.

Unfortunately, under the new model publishers forced into play, the book industry took control away from Amazon’s smart algorithms and ebooks were set at fixed prices, almost all at either $12.99 or $14.99. After Random House, the largest publisher of all, switched to so-called agency pricing plan in 2011, ebook sales growth slowed dramatically.

And even after regulators broke up the conspiracy to some degree, ebook prices are still pretty static. The price for the ebook of Hillary Clinton’s “Hard Choices” has been more or less stuck at $14.99 at Amazon and competitors Apple (AAPL) and Barnes & Noble (BKS) since it came out.

A lose-lose situation

Ironically, not only do consumers pay more, but publishers – and authors – profit less.

As revealed in the price fixing trial last year, the two price bands were negotiated between Apple and publishers with no testing. And the prices don’t end up bringing in the most revenue – each sale may bring in more, but the higher price results in a fewer number of sales that more than offsets the higher prices, explains Rafi Mohammed, a top pricing strategy consultant.

“The agency model – a retail price assigned by publishers – precludes Amazon from setting the most profitable price,” he says. “Generally speaking, Amazon has found that lower than publisher suggested prices are the most profitable.”

That was the point of Amazon’s recent blog post revealing some data about ebook sales at different prices. The company found that on average an ebook priced at $9.99 sold 1.74 times as many copies as an ebook priced at $14.99.

The greater number of copies sold more than offset the lower sticker price, generating more revenue for publishers and authors. And since there is almost no additional cost to selling one more copy – or 10,000 more – of an ebook, additional sales revenue is highly profitable.

Publishers and their allies quickly attacked the number, but their math made little sense. They worried: What’s to stop Amazon from pushing ebook prices down to $6.99, then $1.99 and so on until there was no money for authors left at all?

They seemed to ignore the most basic principle of the Amazon pricing system: finding the price that generates the most total revenue.

The system would only price an ebook at $6.99 instead of $9.99 if that attracted a massive increase in sales volume to offset the lower price. At $6.99, ebook sales would have to increase by more than 1.4 times to exceed the revenue of the $9.99 price, or 2.1 times overall to beat the $14.99 ebook’s total revenue. And if that was the case, then publishers and authors ought to cheer the overall increase.

Amazon’s interest isn’t in the lowest possible price – it’s in maximizing the total sales revenue from each book.

Some like to lump Amazon in with tech firms like Apple and Google (GOOGL) and imply that book selling isn’t a top priority. But unlike Apple, which makes money from selling hardware, and Google’s ad-based sales, almost all of Amazon’s revenue is generated from sales of actual stuff made by others, stuff like ebooks.

Set aside the conspiracy theories that Amazon sold ebooks at a loss to build a monopoly. The company’s ebook business has always generated a profit overall and the intention was to maximize sales, not become the evil overlord of publishing. (The fact that Amazon runs its established business units at a profit may come as a surprise to those who only pay attention to the company’s quarterly reports on Wall Street, where Amazon is seemingly always just breaking even or reporting losses. But Bezos reinvests all profits from older areas, like books, into newer, higher-growth areas, like cloud computing.)

Amazon’s better track record

It’s also worth diverging from the economics and looking at history to decide who’s in a better position to control ebook prices. Not only has publishers’ insistence on high prices stifled sales recently, it also helped keep the market from even taking off in the years before Amazon’s Kindle.

Sony (SNE), Microsoft (MSFT) and others tried to beat Amazon to the ebook game, but set prices even higher than hardcovers, giving consumers no incentive to try the new format. Bezos and company actually kept their $9.99 price a secret from publishers before introducing the Kindle.

The copyright industries overall have a horrendous track record navigating digital transitions. Hollywood initially resisted the shift from video cassette tapes, and the dominant rental model, to DVDs, with their emphasis on sales at much lower retail prices. But within a few years, DVD sales exploded and total revenue was much higher.

There is one legitimate question about Amazon’s analysis: It doesn’t include the likelihood that lower priced ebooks cannibalize some print book sales. Although sales of print books are less profitable than ebook sales, authors receive a much higher royalty rate from print (which may explain some of their pique at Amazon’s tactics), and print bookstores are an effective means of helping readers discover new books.

Several studies have attempted to quantify ebook cannibalization. Two recent analyses, one in 2012 and one in 2013, found that while there was some substitution of ebook buying, mostly for top print best sellers, ebooks did more to expand the overall market by surfacing more older titles along with ebook-only (generally self-published) books.

And that really should be the bottom line in this age of endless apps, YouTube videos and Instagram feeds available on every phone in every pocket. Reading was in decline before the Kindle came on the scene and ebooks have been exactly the kind of digital boost the industry desperately needed.

Now it’s time to get the market growing again by putting pricing back in the hands of the experts.

By Mark Coker

If you haven’t yet planned a box set, now is the time to start planning for one.  This post will show you how.

The two most common types of box set are single-author and multi-author.

For a single-author box set, an author might combine all the books in a series, or might combine the series starters of multiple series, or might simply combine all their standalone titles into a single collection.  Smashwords author Anne Marie Novark, for example, created a single-author First in a Series Box Set featuring four of her full-length romance series starters for the value-price of only $2.99.  Smart.

For a multi-author box set, multiple authors, usually in the same genre or category, collaborate to publish multiple full-length books or complete short stories in a value-priced bundle.

Several Smashwords authors have joined together to publish limited-time charity box sets.  One recent Smashwords box set, A Sweet Life, was orchestrated by author Brenda Novak and featured fourteen New York Times bestsellers.  In one month, the box set earned nearly $30,000 for diabetes research from sales across the Smashwords network, and more from other channels.  Amazing.

Another more recent fundraiser example is Star Crossed, orchestrated by author Amy Miles, where thirteen bestselling YA Smashwords fantasy authors – including Amy Miles, Amy A. Bartol, Chanda Hahn, Ella James, Jocelyn Stover, Quinn Loftis, Rebecca Ethington, Shelly Crane, and Wendy Owens – are raising money for a St. Louis-based autism charity. Star Crossed releases August 18 and is available now for preorder at iBooks and will be available soon at Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

Box sets are usually value-priced, meaning the box set costs the reader less than purchasing all the books individually.

The ebook format is uniquely suited to box sets in a way that print is not.  The Star Crossed box set of full-length fantasy novels comprises 1.2 million words, a length that in print might span an entire length of a bookshelf.  In ebook form, it’s a single convenient and lightweight download.

A Closer Look at Multi-Author Box Sets

Multi-author box sets represent an especially great sales, marketing and audience-building opportunity for authors.  For the remainder of this post, I’ll focus on multi-author box sets (many of the tips apply to single-author box sets as well).

The magic of a multi-author box set is that each author promotes the box set to their respective fan base.  It’s a great opportunity for fans of one author to discover similarly great authors in the same genre or category.  The audience reach is amplified dramatically via the aggregated promotional effort of all participating authors.  If each participating author has thousands of readers subscribed to their private mailing lists, and thousands of fans following them on Twitter and Facebook, you can quickly begin to appreciate the power of amplified collaborative marketing.

Here’s how to set up a multi-author box set at Smashwords:

Choose your collaborators and focus – Choose collaborators who write for the same target reader you write for.  For example, if you write New Adult romance, collaborate with fellow NA romance authors.  If you write YA fantasy, collaborate with your favorite YA fantasy authors.  Themes are great too.  For example, a multi-author box set of Halloween-themed horror novels is a great idea if you write Halloween-themed fiction (get it on preorder now!). Select your collaborators carefully.  You’re going to recommend this box set and your fellow authors to your fans, which means your trusted reputation with your fans is on the line if you partner with authors that won’t satisfy your readers.

Work out your business terms – Decide amongst yourselves who will upload the book, and how you plan to price the book and split the proceeds. Smashwords cannot split the proceeds, so this will be the responsibility of the author or publisher who uploads the box set.  Some Smashwords authors doing charity box sets have set up new, standalone Smashwords accounts for the sole purpose of simplifying accounting.

Create your cover image – As instructed in the Smashwords Style Guide, Smashwords cannot accept cover images that are pseudo-3d (the cover image is a digital rendition of a three dimensional physical box).  The reason is that iBooks will not accept these because they correctly believe that a small number of customers might think they’re actually purchasing a physical box set, which they are not.  All authors should be listed on the ebook cover image. Click here to learn more about Smashwords cover requirements.

Format with a linked Table of Contents – You’ll combine the multiple books into a single ebook file.  Although not a requirement, I recommend that you create a linked Table of Contents for the box set.  This way, each author’s book can be listed in the table of contents and easily visible in the ebook file’s NCX navigation (the NCX is what generates the “Table of Contents” items you see on your iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Nook or other device or e-reading app).  It’s a good idea to list the books in the ToC as “Book Title by Author Name” without the “quotes” and then underneath each title listing create another link to a section below each author’s book labeled “About Author Name” in which you provide a short bio following each author’s book.  You can also list and link to other author-specific sections, such as “Other books by Author Name” or “Connect with Author Name.” To learn how to add navigation to a Smashwords ebook, see Step 20 in the Style Guide, and don’t miss my blog post and video, How to Add Navigation to a Smashwords Ebook.  You’ll find some additional tips in the blog post on box set navigation.  If you watch the video you’ll learn how incredibly easy it is to upgrade all your Smashwords books with enhanced navigation.

List the box set as a preorder – A preorder allows the collaborating authors to promote the box set to their respective fan bases for weeks or months in advance of release of the book.  Smashwords distributes preorders to iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, and each retailer credits all accumulated preoders toward the book’s first-day unit sales, which causes the book to spike in the bestseller lists, which causes the book to become more visible and more desirable to readers.  More visibility + more desire = more sales!  Click here to learn about Smashwords preorders.

Upload – Once the book is formatted to the Smashwords Style Guide, upload it as you normally would from the Smashwords “Publish” page, and then download the .epub file to confirm the formatting looks great and the navigation works as expected.  If you need to make any corrections or updates, click to Dashboard: Upload New Version to upload the new file.  The person who updates the book will be the controlling user.

Special tip for the book title – I think it’s a good idea to mention the word “box set” in the book’s title, and also the number of contributing authors, and if it’s a charity box set mention that as well. Such a title quickly communicates to the browsing reader it’s a box set, the theme and why they should care. For example, in the metadata, the title for Star Crossed is listed as Star Crossed (Thirteen-Book Charity Box Set for Autism).  The title metadata for A Sweet Life was A Sweet Life Boxed Set (Fourteen Contemporary Romances by Bestselling Authors to Benefit Diabetes Research).

Special tips for the book description – It’s a good idea to list all the books and authors in the book description.  This will improve discoverability at retailers, and will also help make the book more desirable to readers.  Do not mention price in the description.  It’s okay to mention the bundle is “value-priced,” but don’t write something like, “A $79.00 value, yours for just $.99!”  Prices are never allowed in book descriptions because Smashwords books are distributed to global retailers and sold in multiple currencies.  For a customer who purchases in Euros or Yen or Pounds, a USD price is confusing and inaccurate.  Anytime you confuse a prospective reader, you create friction, and friction causes them to click away and you lose them.  If the box set is raising money for charity, avoid writing in the description, “All proceeds go to charity,” because that’s not exactly accurate since the retailer is not donating their proceeds.  It’s more accurate to write, “The authors will donate their proceeds from the sale of this box set to XYZ charity.”

Giving multiple authors credit in the “written by” metadata – Upon upload, the only author credited in the “written by” metadata in the book listing will be the author who uploaded the book. That’s not good, because you want all the authors credited in the metadata, and retailers want to see all the authors credited on the cover image should also be credited in the metadata as well.  To give all authors credit in the metadata, click the “support” link at the bottom of any Smashwords web page to contact our support team.  Provide us a direct hyperlink to the author profile page of each contributing author and we’ll link them up with the book.  If the author doesn’t yet have a Smashwords account, please ask them to create one.  It’s free!  Another option:  If you’ve upgraded your account to Publisher status, you can create “ghost” accounts for each contributing author.  This option is only recommended for publishers because once you upgrade your account to publisher status, it’s a permanent change.  Note that we’ll link all the authors at Smashwords but our retailers may not be able to link all the names.  This is why it’s important to place the author names in the book description as well.
Good luck, and have fun!

By Mark Coker

 

swscribdoysterAmazon today unveiled Kindle Unlimited, following in the footsteps of Smashwords partners Scribd and Oyster.

When I first heard of Kindle Unlimited, I was pleased.  After learning more, however, I think indies should steer clear of it.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I was initially skeptical of the prospects for a “Netflix of ebooks,” but I began to see the light as I examined the emerging business models of the subscription services.

Now, several months into our relationships with Scribd and Oyster, I’m pleased to report these two ebook subscription services are the fastest growing retail channels at Smashwords at a time when industry-wide ebook sales are looking anemic.

These services will bring more readers to ebooks and possibly even more readers to conventional ebook retailers (especially if more retailers offer subscription services too).

I think Scribd and Oyster hit the nail on the head by creating services that balance the intersecting interests of readers, authors, the subscription service itself and the publishing industry in which we all operate.

The same cannot be said for Kindle Unlimited.  Indies would do well to avoid Kindle Unlimited for one simple reason:  it requires KDP Select exclusivity.

I’ve been speaking out against KDP Select ever since they launched it in 2011 when I wrote my post, Amazon Shows its Predatory Stripes with KDP Select.  Amazon partisans have accused me of being an Amazon hater for my criticism of KDP Select, but that’s simply not true. I admire Amazon.  Jeff Bezos and team are freaking brilliant. They deserve massive kudos for catalyzing the rise of ebooks, and for changing the lives of indie authors.

But for all of Amazon’s good deeds, it does not mean we indies should kiss their feet unconditionally. Their business methods are not beyond reproach.  We should encourage a healthy debate about Amazon’s practices and how they can do better for authors and readers.  I can admire Amazon yet still oppose exclusivity.  We should also recognize when Amazon’s business interests don’t align with author interests.

KDP Select is a good example where the business interests of Amazon and authors diverge.

Exclusivity is great for Amazon, but it’s not necessarily great for authors and readers.  Exclusivity starves competing retailers of books readers want to read, which motivates readers to move their reading to the Kindle platform. This is why Amazon has made exclusivity central to their ebook strategy. They’re playing a long term game of attrition.

Most indie authors recognize the value in fostering a diverse ecosystem of multiple competing retailing options.  Yet every book enrolled in KDP Select is a vote to put Amazon’s competitors out of business. You know this to be true if you believe, as I believe, that indies are the future of publishing.

Authors must weigh the benefits of KDP Select’s many enticing features against the alternative benefits of broad and diversified distribution.  How do you measure what you’ll lose from either decision when missed opportunities are immeasurable?  And is it the indie author’s responsibility to support Amazon’s competitors?  Should an indie author feel guilty for giving KDP Select a try?  I don’t envy authors who must make these decisions.  Amazon forces these difficult decisions upon authors.

It can take years to build readership at a retailer.  Authors who cycle their books in and out of KDP Select will have a more difficult time building readership at Amazon’s competitors. Millions of readers prefer shopping at retailers other than Amazon. These other retailers operate in multiple countries (iBooks, for example, operates in 51 countries).  These country-specific stores represent unique micro-markets of captive audiences not reachable via Amazon.

Any time an author goes exclusive, they risk alienating fans who prefer shopping at other retailers, and they miss the opportunity for serendipitous discovery by new readers at other stores.  They risk missing those times where lightning strikes and their books break out at different retailers at different times, often for reasons that can’t be identified.

Authors who go exclusive at Amazon become more dependent (the opposite of independent) upon Amazon.  Just as any financial adviser will advise you to avoid placing your retirement nest egg in a single basket, indies should think twice before locking their books into these three-month, automatically-renewing KDP Select contracts.

With KDP Select, Amazon rewards authors who go exclusive and disadvantages authors who do not.  That’s right, they’re punishing regular KDP authors who don’t go exclusive by denying them access to special sales and discovery tools like free promotional pricing, Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners Lending Library.  These are great tools so it’s a shame Amazon doesn’t make them available to all authors without restriction.

Amazon is creating a caste system within the Amazon store. Also worthy of note, as revealed by Publishers Lunch, it appears as if Amazon is paying traditionally published authors more for their participation in Kindle Unlimited than they’re paying indie authors.

No other retailer creates such artificial restrictions for indie authors.  Smashwords-distributed authors, for example, enjoy unlimited free pricing, greater pricing control, ebook preorders, broader global distribution and all without the handcuffs of exclusivity.

It’s unfortunate Amazon is restricting access to Kindle Unlimited.  It’s unfortunate they’re denying their customers access to the books of all indie authors who would otherwise participate if not for the exclusivity requirement.  It’s unfortunate that Amazon forces indies to make such a choice.

For indie authors who feel trapped in KDP Select, today’s announcement offers you a silver lining:  you now have an out.  Because Amazon automatically opted all KDP Select authors into Kindle Unlimited, they’re giving KDP Select authors the ability to immediately withdraw from KDP Select without waiting for their current three-month term to expire.  The instructions, which are listed at https://kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=AA9BSAGNO1YJH&ref_=pe_446610_120662130 , advise authors to contact their support team to leave KDP Select.

If you’ve got indie author friends who are in KDP Select, now might be a good time for them to cast their vote against exclusivity.  KDP Select would not exist were it not for the ongoing support of indie authors.

By Mark Coker

swchartsSmashwords today added daily sales reporting and interactive charting for sales at iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, OverDrive and the Smashwords store.

The reports include daily and total order accumulation numbers for iBooks preorders.

The reports provide authors and publishers unprecedented insight into recent sales performance across the largest Smashwords retailers.  Authors can use the reports to gain rapid feedback on the effectiveness of marketing and promotion campaigns.

You can view your aggregated performance over the prior seven day or 30 day period, with drill-down views by retailer, title or series.  There are also one-click filters to view priced books, free books, all books and accumulated preorders (iBooks only).  Publishers and literary agents who manage multiple authors can drill down and view author-specific performance.

If you want to compare the performance of two or three series across different retailers, you can do it.  If you want to measure the impact of a blog tour, an advertisement, a price change, a new cover image, a new release in a series or a new free series starter or anything else, the results are now at your fingertips.

Each chart is also accompanied by a table that shows how the recent 7- or 30-day period compares to the prior 7- or 30-day period.

Reports are updated same-day daily every three hours for Barnes & Noble; next-day daily for iBooks and Kobo; and same-day daily every 30 minutes for the Smashwords store.

Sales data can be downloaded as a spreadsheet.

Find the new charts in your Dashboard via the Daily Sales link.  Learn more about daily charting in our Daily Reporting FAQ.

What’s coming next with Daily Sales:  We’ll continue to add more retailers to the daily charts as retailers make their data available to us.  Also, in the months ahead as we begin archiving more daily trending data, and we’ll add options for longer analysis periods such as 60 days, 90 days and longer.

Consolidate Your Distribution with Smashwords

If you’re uploading direct to any of our major retailers such as Barnes & Noble, iBooks or Kobo, consider consolidating your distribution with Smashwords.  We help you spend more time writing and less time managing multiple upload platforms.  By aggregating your sales analytics at Smashwords, we make it easier for you to spot trends, measure performance and adjust your marketing.  If you want to change a price, or update your book description or upload a new cover, you do it once at Smashwords and we get it out to all our retailer and library partners.  All Smashwords authors enjoy centralized pricing and metadata management, aggregrated sales reporting, exclusive sales and merchandising tools, access to a growing network of retail and library sales channels, and consolidated payments and year-end tax reporting.

At Smashwords, we’re always working to bring you the tools, distribution and knowledge that will give your books a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Smashwords Daily Reports joins other powerful tools at Smashwords including Smashwords Coupon Manager (custom coupon codes), Preorder Distribution (preorder listings at iBooks, B&N and Kobo), Smashwords Series Manager (enhanced series discoverability), Pricing Manager (centralized pricing control and custom library pricing), Smashwords Interviews (fun self-inteviewing tool helps readers learn the story behind the author).  More tools are coming!

Click here to learn how to publish and distribute with Smashwords.

Kudos to Case Talbot on the Smashwords engineering team for leading this exciting project.  She’s also the engineer behind Smashwords Interviews, Dropbox integration and the responsive website redesign.  Thanks also to the rest of the Smashwords engineering team who assisted her, and thanks to our beta testers who provided us wonderful feedback on this feature.